Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Battle(s) of Goat Hill - Part II

A few weeks ago, I took a detailed look at a handful of local races for seats in the Alabama Legislature, with a view to dispelling the GOP line that they will certainly be in control of Goat Hill come January. Once again, the Republican Party has issued press releases, announcing the inevitability of its takeover of the Alabama Legislature in 2010. Once again, its obedient friends in certain editorial offices have dutifully repeated their masters’ story line for thousands of readers. A recent headline in The Birmingham News informed readers that “Alabama GOP Sets Sights on Taking Control of State Legislature” - not the most neutral headline, and the article has some neutrality issues on its own. In referring to the race in Senate District 13, it said:
... if Dial, a longtime senator who is well-known in his community, can’t beat newcomer Varner in what is now a Republican-leaning district, chances are Republicans don’t have much of a chance to win the Senate.
OK, exactly who said it’s a “Republican-leaning district”? Looking at the map, a lot of that district consists of hard-line Democratic counties, represented in the House by the likes of Rep. Richard Lindsey (D-Centre). The courthouses in that district are overwhelmingly Democratic. It may be a GOP pickup chance, it may not. Former Democratic Senator Gerald Dial - who lost the Democratic primary in 2006 - is making a comeback try as a Republican. He will be well known, but his last outing in this district was an “L.” But out there as unquestioned, if unsupported, news, is that it’s a “Republican-leaning district.”

The article meets the de minimis balance test, in that it quotes Democratic Chair Joe Turnham and other Democrats, but their quotes are not the best points that could be made. They are not quoted pointing out several prime Democratic pickup opportunities that are likely to offset any GOP gains, and may exceed them. I don’t blame these leaders for not being quoted saying these things, because I know from personal experience the most telling points you make often get edited out of a news story. But there are a few salient points that need to be made about the lay of the land, and they don’t bode well for the Republicans.

Statewide trends and considerations. But first, a word from our sponsor. Well, not really. But if you read my first post on legislative races, you recall that the linchpin of the GOP strategy collapsed when Artur Davis did not win the gubernatorial primary. The GOP had counted on him to pull several white Democratic nominees to defeat with himself in November. A second shell landed in the GOP legislative foxhole on the day of the runoff, when Bradley Byrne went down to defeat. That is when our “sponsor” - AEA, so says the GOP itself - attained its foremost electoral goal of the cycle. The cha-ching! you just heard was something, probably at least two million dollars, that AEA would have spent attacking Byrne in the general, landing in the coffers of Democratic legislative nominees everywhere.

On the other side of the coin, the Republican National Bank, sometimes known by its legal name, the “Business Council of Alabama,” maxed its credit card trying to nominate Bradley Byrne for the governor’s mansion. The Business Council isn’t used to having to contest the GOP nomination, and their lack of spending discipline showed. While Alabama Power and other Big Mules will never run out of money, they will be playing hurt in the Big Game in November. Another self-inflicted Republican injury is political. The bruising GOP runoff between Bentley on one side, and Byrne, Hubbard, and the GOP establishment on the other, has left cracks and fractures all over the Republican edifice. Yes, everyone kissed and made nice in public this last weekend, and the peaceful reunification of the GOP was dutifully reported in The Birmingham News. But don’t you believe it. The wounding of Mike Hubbard in the gubernatorial race has already led him to renounce another term as Republican State Chairman. Despite the Marcus Welby figure Dr. Bentley has managed to cut so far this year, people around Tuscaloosa tell me he has a vindictive side. He isn’t likely to forget Hubbard’s barely-concealed support of Byrne, and if he gets a chance to plunge the dagger into Hubbard’s hopes for the Speaker’s chair, he will. With Hubbard wounded, others have been rumored to be quietly sounding out Republican House members about the possibility of replacing him, whether as Speaker or Minority Leader. The upshot of all this is that there will continue to be distraction inside the GOP ranks as November approaches, and Hubbard will be tempted to overspend in safe districts to shore up his leadership support. Given the known character of Mike Hubbard, we can probably count on him to short-change his party for his personal benefit.

And for the local news from across Alabama. Again, this topic wouldn’t be complete without looking at a few districts time, space and the lack of runoff results kept me from writing about earlier.

Senate District 5. This district is centered on Walker County, a Democratic stronghold. It takes in the one sparsely-populated corner of Jefferson County in the Birmingport area, and parts of Tuscaloosa County into the fringes of Northport and Tuscaloosa. The Democratic nominee is Jasper lawyer Brett Wadsworth. While this seat has been in Republican hands for the last three terms, there have been extraordinary circumstances contributing to that. Well, there’s not anything particularly extraordinary about a lot of money. But the two Republicans - Curt Lee and Charles “Slugger” Bishop - have both been wealthy candidates who liberally (so to speak) self-financed. Neither of their Democratic opponents has been able to match the money dump. The GOP this time is fielding Greg Reed, a Jasper executive in a mid-small medical equipment company. While he’s not starving, Reed lacks the deep pockets that enabled Lee and Bishop to swamp their Democratic opponents with checks. The fact is, the base voting history of this district is Democratic, and Wadsworth is not obviously outgunned financially. As the photo indicates, he, or someone helping his campaign, has a good eye for snagging voter attention. This district should, at worst for the Democrats, be considered a tossup. A more factually-based evaluation would call it a Democratic leaner.

House District 8. This Morgan County district has been represented by Democrat Bill Dukes, who was noted for being the eldest member of the current Legislature. When health concerns induced him to drop his re-election bid a couple of months ago, the GOP got out their chalk and wrote “House-8” in their “takeaway” column. Not so fast. The Democratic nominee is Drama Breland (who many not have the most notable name in this post - keep reading). Breland is a well known Decatur businesswoman, and the wife of popular retired Judge David Breland. Despite the GOP’s claims to this as a pickup possibility, it’s really a carefully drawn Democratic district, which includes most of the black neighborhoods in Decatur. No Republican bothered to run against Dukes in 2006, and the last time one did in 2002, he handily held the seat, 74.0%-26.0%. There are a lot of GOP voters in Morgan County. They have been carefully quarantined in other districts. Forget the GOP hype, this is at least a Democratic leaner, if not a safe Democratic seat.

House District 26. This district in Marshall and DeKalb Counties is being vacated by longtime Democratic Representative Frank McDaniel. As soon as McDaniel announced his retirement a few months back, GOP mouthpieces immediately wrote this district into their “pickup” list. That may have been premature. The Democratic nominee is Randall White of Boaz. White recently retired after a 37-year career in adult education, and most of the people in this district with a G.E.D. know him and owe that certificate in part to his efforts. That’s a nice base to build from. White is also a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Boaz, and has staked out pro-life and Second Amendment positions that will make it impossible to paint him as Nancy Pelosi. The Republicans have nominated Kerry Rich, who held the other House seat from Marshall County (now held by Democrat Jeff McLaughlin) from 1990-94 before deciding re-election was futile. More importantly, while White was being feted by business and civic groups for his retirement, Rich was undergoing a primary and runoff fight that made Byrne-Bentley-James look like a Sunday School picnic. This was the sort of fight that leaves feelings hurt and coffers empty. One of Rich’s opponents filed a successful complaint with the FCC after Rich failed to take himself off the air of his radio station (as a DJ), or offer opponents equal time. This is at least a tossup race.

House District 38. Right in Mike Hubbard’s back yard, and held by a Republican incumbent, this district is not one the GOP needs to have to divert resources to hold. But divert they must. The Democratic nominee is - some things you just can’t make up - Huey Long, a former Chambers County commissioner. While Lee County, a rural part of which is in this district, has shown regrettable Republican tendencies in recent cycles, Chambers County is historically much more Democratic, and retains a strong local Democratic trend. Perhaps more worrisome for the GOP, in 2006, when Riley held a comfortable lead at the top of the ticket, Republican incumbent Duwayne Bridges only held onto this seat by a 50.7%-49.3% margin. Danny, at Doc’s Political Parlor, observes that “I believe the argument could be made that” Bridges is “as vulnerable as” at least one or two of the Democrats whose seats the GOP tout as “in play.” One subtle point I gleamed in looking at Long’s Facebook page: one of his Likers is former State Representative John Rice of Opelika. That’s Republican former Representative John Rice of Opelika, whose fierce partisan tendencies have long been notorious. While many regard Rice as something of a spent force, he should still be considered as a notable local Republican. If this indicates, as I suspect it does, any sort of split in the Lee County GOP, Bridges is in for a long election night.

Senate District 8. Some of the Republicans’ claimed “in play” seats are simply fantastic. Among them, they count the seat of Senator Lowell Barron (D-Fyffe). Barron’s opponent is one Shadrack McGill, who hails from the isolated mountains of western Jackson County. McGill appears to be a young Tea Party type who has become involved after listening to numerous political sermons at his rural church. Apart from whatever crumbs the state GOP throws his way, his finance will be negligible. Four years ago, when Barron was challenged by a seasoned GOP activist who prodigiously self-financed from his successful business, Barron handily won, 56.6%-43.4%. For the last quadrennium, Barron, undistracted by his previous duties as President Pro Tem of the Senate, has even more assiduously worked to cultivate the volunteer fire departments, high school bands, and Little League ballparks that are the meat and potatoes of legislative campaigns, especially in rural districts. Only this month, Barron again became a hero to every good ole boy in his district, when he brokered a compromise with the National Park Service that should allow continued four-wheeling in the Little River Canyon National Preserve. Among the broken links and jarring grammar of McGill’s website is the observation that “Shadd is pursuing a degree in Political Science.” He’s about to get a serious homework lesson. If the GOP thinks this seat is really in play, Loretta Nall has successfully infiltrated the GOP High Command.

As with my previous review of Legislative seats, my point is not that the Democrats are going to sweep the seats I have named. Even I will admit that’s unlikely. But it’s equally unlikely that the GOP will, either, and therein lies the fallacy of their PR campaign. When they tout their impending takeover of Goat Hill, they are counting every seat I have listed as a likely or solid pickup. That’s simply unrealistic. The problem is, most of the media in Alabama have not really challenged them on this. How can we get them to? Well, a first step is the labor-intensive process of educating first-tier media collectors - that is, reporters - about these individual races, and their impact on the overall numbers. If we don’t do that spadework, no amount of clever turns of phrase will reverse the hostile tenor of the resulting news coverage. As was done with some effect in the piece from The Birmingham News that opened this post, we can also remind the media - and the voters - that this is not the first time the GOP has proclaimed the coming of its Legislative Antichrist. It’s just the latest iteration. Those of us with long memories recall when, as recently as the 1970s, Birmingham’s George Siebels (actually quite moderate, considering his party affiliation), was the default Republican leader in the House, as he was the only Republican in either chamber. While a return to that golden age is unlikely, we need to remind the media that, despite the occasional court-delivered Republican governor, the Alabama voter has trusted the Democratic Party with the Legislature, and for good reason. The only thing more important is to fight to see to it that we continue to deservedly do so. These are tasks not only for the statewide Party leadership, but for each nominee for the Legislature and their local supporters. The links to these candidates’ websites provide another valuable opportunity to work for this worthy goal.


  1. Um...how ya feel about Darth Barron's recently vacated seat now, oh political guru of the blogosphere?